Will the real iPhone SDK please stand up?

So…with WWDC done and dusted, the post-mortems and the analyses are out. There is a general sense of disappointment after it was completed (I felt it too) that the features Apple secretly guarded for a year didn’t live up to the hype that surrounded it. (Transparent 3D dock? – oh c’mon!) The saving grace could have been the rumored iPhone SDK, but that was found wanting too.

But is it all gloom in Apple-land? John Gruber believes that using Safari as an SDK is a slap in the face of developers who want to build ‘real’ iPhone apps. And while I understand his frustration – there are still some pieces missing from the jigsaw which can change the picture dramatically.

For the sake of brevity third-party-iPhone-applications will be referred to as Safari-apps.

  • Jobs mentioned that Safari is the SDK for the iPhone. And while that does sound vague, what it could actually mean is that Webkit is used as the rendering engine for all third-party iPhone apps. Much like how Mozilla apps (which use a combination of XUL, CSS and Javascript) are created using the Gecko rendering engine. What this implies is that you could have ‘headless’ Safari apps, running on full screen, having the same consistent look and feel as native iPhone applications, with a complete iPhone JS library with hooks into core functionality (such as accessing contacts, calls lists, etc.) . I can also see a way for you to create shortcuts to these Safari apps on the iPhone main screen (or desktop if you will), thus eliminating the need for you to open the browser every time you need to launch a Safari app.

The advantage of this approach is that one, you have sand-boxed applications which, in the words of His Steveness won’t ‘bring down the entire West-Coast network’, but will also make over-the-air deployments a reality. Traditional mobile applications suck in the sense that you need to install drivers, syncing software and actually attach a cable from your phone to the PC before you can install them – Safari apps will completely remove those bottlenecks.

  • AT&T have yet to announce the data plans which will come with the iPhone. Since Apple has boldly bet on Safari-apps as the way to go as far as third-party applications are concerned, I think this points to the iPhone having a very cheap (and/or unlimited) data plan which will further aid people using Safari apps without having to fret about the crippling expenses associated with using a GPRS/EDGE data connection.
  • Safari being released on Windows is another give-away. What this means is that more Web 2.0 companies will make their web applications Safari-compatible, and in the process naturally become Safari applications.

Far from being an insult to developers, I feel this is the way to go for mobile applications. Gruber’s analogy comparing Safari applications to third-party Mac software doesn’t hold – primarily because mobile phones and computers are two completely different beasts and the applications which run on them are poles apart, both in terms of functionality as well as user-expectations.

P.S. Safari 3 on Windows XP required no restart, but it did on Mac OS X Tiger – what is up with that?

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